NFC West: Colin Jones
Catch us if you can.
That’s a message the Seattle Seahawks could send out to the rest of the NFC West.
It is also something the San Francisco 49ers might say to the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams. But the Cardinals and Rams might have a statement of their own: We’re coming for you.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the NFC West is the best division in the NFL. It includes a Super Bowl champion in Seattle along with a team in San Francisco that, arguably, came up one play short of reaching its second consecutive Super Bowl.
It also includes a team in Arizona that won 10 games, one of which was a victory at Seattle -- the Seahawks' only home loss in 2013. And there's a team in St. Louis that won two of its last three games to finish 7-9 while playing most of the season without starting quarterback Sam Bradford.
So the question heading into 2014 is whether the Cardinals and Rams are in position to catch the Seahawks and 49ers. Have Arizona and St. Louis closed the gap on what might be the NFL’s two best teams?
The Cardinals have been active in free agency, signing cornerback Antonio Cromartie, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, tight end John Carlson, receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn, running back Jonathan Dwyer and offensive lineman Ted Larsen.
Clearly, the competition in this division keeps getting better.
The four writers who cover the division for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Terry Blount in Seattle, Bill Williamson in San Francisco, Josh Weinfuss in Arizona and Nick Wagoner in St. Louis -- take a look at where things stand in the NFC West on four key topics. We also polled our Twitter followers to find how they viewed the issues.
The Cardinals have made significant moves in free agency. The Rams, aside from keeping Rodger Saffold, have mostly stood pat. Which is closer to the playoffs?
Terry Blount: This is a no-brainer for me. The Cardinals are a team on the rise with one of the NFL's best coaches in Bruce Arians. He took a 5-11 team and transformed it to 10-6 in one season. He was 9-3 at Indianapolis in 2012 while filling in for Chuck Pagano. Arizona was 7-2 in its last nine games and won three of the last four, with the only loss being 23-20 to the 49ers in the season finale. The Cardinals could become a serious challenger to the two-team stronghold of Seattle and San Francisco. However, I do believe the Rams will have a winning season if they can hold their own in the division games.
Nick Wagoner: It's hard to evaluate this without seeing what happens in the draft, especially with the Rams having two premium picks. Even then it would be unfair to judge right away. Still, I have to go with the Cardinals. They were trending up at the end of the season and patched a big hole with offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Losing Karlos Dansby was a blow, but adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie to a talented stable at the position makes them better. The Rams, meanwhile, are clearly counting on a whole lot of in-house improvement and a big draft. Keeping Saffold was important (and lucky), but it seems risky to pin all hopes on a leap to the playoffs on a group of young players all making a jump at the same time.
Josh Weinfuss: Arizona is the easy answer, and that's not because I cover them. The Cardinals were 10-6 last season and the first team kept out of the postseason. All the Cardinals have done this offseason is fix deficiencies and plug holes. Their offensive line got markedly better with the addition of left tackle Jared Veldheer. Their wide receiver corps and kick return game were solidified with Ted Ginn, and they now have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league with Antonio Cromartie coming on board. General manager Steve Keim looked at what went wrong in 2013 and went to work on fixes. It should put the Cardinals over the playoff hump.
Bill Williamson: It has to be Arizona. The Cardinals were so close to making the playoffs last season. They would have likely been dangerous in the postseason too. I like the way this franchise is shaping up. It seems like it is well run and well coached. The roster is also getting deep. Carson Palmer will have to be replaced sooner or later, but the Cardinals are on to something. The Rams certainly have some nice pieces and are probably the best fourth-place team in the NFL, but they aren't close to matching what Arizona has going for it.
The Seahawks and 49ers played for the NFC title in January. Any reason to believe either won't return to the postseason?
Blount: They were the two best teams in the NFL last season, and there's no legitimate reason to think they won't be among the best in 2014. Seattle has lost 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster, but other than wide receiver Golden Tate, none of them were on the team's priority list to keep. The 49ers move into a shiny new stadium. The only question for San Francisco is the precarious relationship between coach Jim Harbaugh and team executives. Who knows what the future holds there, but it shouldn't matter on game day.
Wagoner: Aside from some debilitating injuries, it's hard to see how either team has taken a major step back. The Seahawks have lost some good players in free agency, but even those players seemingly already had replacements in place. Nobody does a better job of developing talent than Seattle. The Seahawks still have holes to patch on the offensive line and losing receiver Golden Tate is a blow, so there could be some hope the offense will regress. But the defense makes it all go, and it doesn't look like it's going to lose any of its most prized components. As for the Niners, they are the more likely of the two to take a step back, but it's hard to see them taking enough of one to fall out of the postseason. For most of their key free-agent losses they were able to quickly come up with a replacement as good or better than the player lost, and retaining Anquan Boldin says they are looking to make another run at the Super Bowl. Plus, they will have a fully healthy Michael Crabtree ready for the season. Until proven otherwise, these two teams remain the class of the NFC and probably the NFL.
Weinfuss: The only reason either of them won't make the playoffs in 2014 is because the Cardinals or Rams will take their place. The gap between the top and bottom of the NFC West has closed significantly this offseason, making the West much like the Southeastern Conference in college football; everybody will beat up on each other. It's likely the West, if it's anything like last season, can see three teams in the playoffs -- its champion and the two wild cards. If one of the teams between Seattle and San Francisco were not to make it, it's tough, but I think Seattle might slip. The Seahawks lost a significant part of their defensive line and will be going through a Super Bowl hangover. That's risky to deal with and still make the playoffs. On the other hand, San Francisco will be hungry from losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Williamson: I believe these are the two best teams in the NFL. So it's difficult to fathom that either team won't find its way into the playoffs, barring major injuries. Arizona, though, could create an issue for the Seahawks and 49ers. The Cardinals are going to win a lot of games, so both Seattle and San Francisco have to be careful or things could get tricky. In the end, I can see all three teams making the playoffs. This is the reason this division is so intriguing and so fun: Every game is critical. There is just not much room for error. Look at the 49ers last year. They went 12-4, but a 1-2 start hamstrung them. They could never fully recover despite having a great overall regular season. The same intensity will be a factor in 2014 in the NFC West.
@TerryBlountESPN The Cards and Rams are pretty good. They'll be fighting for 2nd place behind the Seahawks.- Danny ®" (@Dah_knee) March 26, 2014
Will Rams quarterback Sam Bradford come back strong from an ACL injury, and what effect will he have on St. Louis having its coveted breakthrough year?
Blount: I think Bradford will be fine as far as the ACL goes, but this is a make-or-break year for him in my view. Bradford was playing pretty well before his injury last year, but the verdict still is out whether he can be an elite quarterback. He enters this season with the best supporting cast he's ever had, but playing in this division with teams that emphasize physical defensive play makes it difficult to show improvement.
Wagoner: All indications from the Rams are that Bradford's rehab is coming along well and he's on schedule to make his return in plenty of time for the start of the regular season. He apparently had a clean tear of the ACL, but he has been rehabbing for a handful of months and should resume throwing soon. Bradford's healthy return means everything to the Rams' chances in 2014. Believe it or not, this is his fifth season in the NFL and, much like the team, this is the time to make some noise. The Rams attempted to open up the offense in the first quarter of 2013 with Bradford to miserable results. They switched to a more run-oriented attack in Week 5 and the offense performed better. Bradford also played better as the run game opened up play-action opportunities in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Rams choose to go a bit more balanced with Bradford at the controls or if they continue at the same run-heavy pace they played with backup Kellen Clemens. Either way, Bradford's contract has two years left on it. If he wants a lucrative extension, this is the time to prove he's worth it.
Weinfuss: Short answer, yes, Bradford will come back strong. Just look at how he started in 2013. He was on pace for a massive year statistically before he got hurt. If he can pick up where he left off, Bradford will return with a bang and show he's still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. As we've seen, a top-tier quarterback can be the difference between sitting idle in the standings and having a breakthrough year. With the talent that surrounds the Rams, with tight end Jared Cook, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Tavon Austin, Chris Givens and Austin Pettis, among others, Bradford may singlehandedly help close the gap between the Rams and the top of the NFC West.
Williamson: I have to be honest: I'm not a big Sam Bradford guy. I think he's just OK. Just OK doesn't cut it in this division, especially considering the defenses he has to play six times a season in the NFC West. He's serviceable, but he's not the answer. Given the state of this division, I cannot envision a scenario where Bradford is the reason the Rams become the class of the NFC West. I think they can get by with Bradford for the short term, but the Rams are going to have to start thinking about the future at this position much earlier than expected when Bradford was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft.
If you had to start a team with either Seahawks QB Russell Wilson or 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, whom would you choose?
Blount: You must be kidding. Give me Wilson every time, every day in every situation. Yes, Kaepernick is 5 inches taller than Wilson. Is there really anyone left who thinks Wilson's lack of height matters? Wilson also is at his best in pressure situations. He lives for it. And he is a more polished person on the field, and off it, than Kaepernick. That's not an observation. It's a fact. But this isn't a rip on Kaepernick. You would be hard-pressed to find any 25-year-old as polished as Wilson. The 49ers can win a Super Bowl with Kaepernick, and probably will soon. But if I'm starting a team, whether it is in football or almost any other life endeavor, I'll take Wilson without a doubt.
Wagoner: Wilson. For those of us covering other teams in the division, it's hard not to admire what he brings to the table. He presents himself as the consummate professional, and even opponents praise him for his work habits, intelligence and ability. He's already got the Super Bowl ring, and it's easy to see how he could add a few more. He's not all the way there in terms of his potential either, and it's probably safe to assume he's just going to keep getting better as his career goes along. That's nothing against Kaepernick, who is a unique talent in his own right, but there aren't many young quarterbacks in the league worth choosing over Wilson.
Weinfuss: Russell Wilson would be my pick, mainly because of his poise and maturity behind center. Colin Kaepernick is undoubtedly talented, but I get the sense he still has a lot of growing to do as a quarterback. He's tough to bring down, especially in the open field, but when he's pressured in the pocket, Kaepernick seems to panic and I wouldn't want that in a quarterback. I also think Wilson, despite his physical stature, is built to last. He's heady enough to stay out of harm's way, and his poise in the huddle will go a long way in leading a team.
Williamson: I'd take Kaepernick. I know it's a tough sell right now, since Wilson's team has beaten Kaepernick and the 49ers three of the past four times they've met, including the NFC title game, and the fact that Wilson has won a Super Bowl. I respect the value of Super Bowl wins and believe quarterback is the most critical position in sports. I'm sure I will smell like a homer with the Kaepernick pick. But moving forward, I just think Kaepernick has a higher ceiling. I think he can take over games more than Wilson can at a higher rate. Players built like Kaepernick and as athletic as Kaepernick just don't exist. He is special. He works extremely hard at his craft and is well coached. I'd take him, and I wouldn't look back. This isn't a knock on Wilson. He is proven and is going to be great. But if I'm starting a team, I'm taking Kaepernick, and I bet more general managers would agree than would disagree.
@BWilliamsonESPN Wilson. Controls the game & makes all the plays. Kaeps athletic advantage will fade overtime as Wilson's mental edge grows.- HTB (@HoldenTyler) March 25, 2014
"It just feels like the Seahawks make a move, then the Niners make a move," former NFL quarterback Damon Huard said Wednesday during our conversation on 710 ESPN Seattle. "The Seahawks sign Percy Harvin, then the Niners go get Anquan Boldin. The Niners just signed Nnamdi Asomugha, they signed Colt McCoy, and now it's the Seahawks' turn to sign a quarterback. It really feels like this competition that was so fun to watch last fall has carried over into the offseason between the Niners and the Seahawks."
That's what it feels like from this angle, too. So, when ESPN's Bill Polian listed 49ers general manager Trent Baalke among his top six executives without a mention of Seattle counterpart John Schneider, I knew some Seahawks fans would take offense.
"Schneider should be on there," SamW9801 wrote in commenting on the Polian piece.
I'm going to ratchet up the discussion with an assist from Tony Villiotti of draftmetrics.com. Tony identified ranges of picks by how frequently teams have found five-year starters within those ranges.
Using those general ranges, displayed at right, I've put together a chart at the bottom of this item comparing the 49ers' and Seahawks' draft choices since 2010.
Baalke took over the 49ers' draft room roughly a month before the 2010 draft. Schneider became the Seahawks' GM that offseason. The 49ers then underwent a coaching change after the 2010 season, at which point Baalke assumed the GM title officially. We might cut Baalke some slack for selecting Taylor Mays, a player then-coach Mike Singletary valued. There were surely other times when both GMs followed their coaches' input, for better or worse.
Seattle has drafted 28 players during this period, three more than San Francisco has drafted. The Seahawks had more to work with from a qualitative point as well. Their median choice was No. 130 overall, compared to No. 165 for the 49ers.
It's pretty clear both teams know what they are doing in the draft.
Aldon Smith, Anthony Davis, Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman have earned Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors for the 49ers. Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Russell Wilson, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman have done so for the Seahawks.
Both teams have found franchise quarterbacks after the first round. Colin Kaepernick was chosen 36th overall in 2011. Wilson went to Seattle at No. 75 last year.
Neither team has missed in that first category, which includes players taken among the top 13 overall picks. Smith and Okung are elite players at premium positions.
Both teams have unanswered questions in that 14-40 range. The 49ers are waiting on receiver A.J. Jenkins to produce. The Seahawks haven't gotten much from guard James Carpenter. But in Iupati and Thomas, the 49ers and Seahawks, respectively, found players among the very best at their positions. Kaepernick's selection puts this group over the top for San Francisco. Seattle got eight sacks from Bruce Irvin as a rookie in 2012, so the Seahawks aren't far behind. It's just impossible to overlook the value a franchise quarterback provides.
Seattle has the edge in the 41-66 range. Mays is long gone from the 49ers. That leaves LaMichael James for the 49ers against Bobby Wagner and Golden Tate for Seattle. Wagner was an instant starter at middle linebacker and a three-down player who commanded consideration for defensive rookie of the year. Tate blossomed with Wilson at quarterback.
The Seahawks also have an edge in that 67-86 range, having selected Wilson.
Seattle holds a 7-3 lead in number of picks used between the 87th and 149th choices, a range producing five-year starters 16 percent of the time, according to Villiotti.
Both teams used picks in that range for players whose injury situations dragged down their draft status: Joe Looney in San Francisco, Walter Thurmond in Seattle. Both teams found starting linebackers in this range: Bowman to the 49ers, K.J. Wright to the Seahawks. Both teams found developmental running backs in that range: Kendall Hunter to the 49ers, Robert Turbin to the Seahawks. Both teams found Pro Bowl players: Bowman in San Francisco, Chancellor in Seattle.
Sherman, arguably the NFL's best cornerback, gives Seattle an edge in the 150 through 189 range of picks. Both teams found backup tight ends there. Anthony Dixon (49ers) and Jeremy Lane (Seahawks) have the potential to expand their roles.
The 49ers found starting fullback Bruce Miller in the final pick range, which runs from 190 to the end of the draft. Seattle found a projected starting guard there in J.R. Sweezy. Malcolm Smith is a candidate to start at linebacker for Seattle. Miller and Sweezy both played defense in college. Miller already has successfully transitioned to offense. Seattle believes Sweezy will do the same.
Summing it up: Both teams can feel good about their draft performance in the past three seasons. I doubt either team would trade its picks for the other team's. That makes sense. Teams draft the players they like best. The 49ers have six projected 2013 starters to show for their choices. The number is eight for the Seahawks, not counting Irvin or Tate. Seattle has had more choices and higher choices, and more openings in the lineup to accommodate those players. I think that shows in the results.
The team traded backup safety Colin Jones to Carolina. San Francisco will reportedly receive a seventh-round choice in return, presumably from 2014 or later given that the Panthers traded a 2013 seventh-rounder to Oakland for Louis Murphy.
The 49ers also released veteran fullback Rock Cartwright, a player the team signed after losing 2011 special-teamer Blake Costanzo to Minnesota in free agency. Cartwright, 32, played more than 60 percent of the special-teams snaps for Oakland last season. He spent much of his career with the Washington Redskins, including when 49ers general manager Trent Baalke worked for the team.
These moves suggest running back Anthony Dixon showed enough to stick as a backup running back and core special-teams player. Dixon's status appeared tenuous when the 49ers signed Brandon Jacobs in free agency. Jacobs appears likely to supplant Dixon in short-yardage situations. Dixon volunteered to play fullback during training camp. He ran effectively during preseason, making a strong case to stick with the team.
As the chart shows, six of the top eight contributors for special-teams snaps from 2011 remain with the team following the departures of Costanzo and Jones. That could change before and during the regular season, of course. NFL teams must reduce their rosters from 75 to 53 players by 9 p.m. ET Friday.
The moves brought the team into compliance with the NFL's 75-man roster deadline.
The more interesting decisions will come Friday, when teams must reduce to 53 players.
The 49ers did release rookie sixth-round offensive lineman Jason Slowey. San Francisco appears to go nine deep at the position if Joe Looney, Daniel Kilgore, Mike Person and Leonard Davis join the five starters on the initial 53.
I'm interested in seeing what happens at tight end, where the team can conceivably get away with keeping only two players, provided defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs sticks on the roster. Dobbs' ability to play tight end could make it tougher for Konrad Reuland to earn a roster spot.
The 49ers have able receiving tight ends in Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. They could use additional blockers at the position. Several players, including Dobbs and even Davis, could serve in that role.
Keeping seven defensive linemen could make sense as well. Will Tukuafu and Isaac Sopoaga are among those with the ability to play fullback in power sets. Their versatility could impact either Rock Cartwright or recently converted fullback Anthony Dixon, two players with value on special teams.
Safety is another position to watch. C.J. Spillman and Colin Jones have obvious value on special teams. Trenton Robinson, a rookie sixth-round choice, has a chance at sticking as the fifth safety.
I'm curious to see if the 49ers keep seven linebackers, one fewer than last season. Eric Bakhtiari would have a hard time earning a roster spot under that scenario. But if it meant keeping an additional defensive lineman, the team would have enviable depth at a position where the team is exceptionally strong, but also has the NFL's oldest projected starters by average age.
All things to consider for a team with talent throughout its roster and some difficult decisions ahead.
Defensive linemen (10)
Average number kept since 2003: 7.0
Safest bets: Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga, Ricky Jean Francois
Leading contenders: Will Tukuafu, Demarcus Dobbs, Ian Williams
Longer odds: Patrick Butrym, Matthew Masifilo, Tony Jerod-Eddie
Comment: The top three are firmly entrenched. All are playing at a high level. The 49ers might want to address this position in the 2013 draft. For now, though, they're set. San Francisco kept seven defensive linemen on its Week 1 roster last season. Tukuafu, Dobbs and Williams combined to play about five percent of the defensive snaps.
Average number kept since 2003: 7.6
Safest bets: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson, Larry Grant, Tavares Gooden
Leading contenders: Cam Johnson, Kourtnei Brown, Eric Bakhtiari
Longer odds: Michael Wilhoite, Joe Holland, Darius Fleming (injured)
Comment: The 49ers have kept eight linebackers on their Week 1 roster for each of the past six seasons. Brown, an undrafted rookie from Clemson, stands 6-foot-6, weighs 255 pounds and moves well. He's also raw and has had injury problems. Johnson, a seventh-round choice, might need to fight off Brown and the more experienced Bakhtiari for a roster spot. Special teams will be a determining factor.
Defensive backs (17)
Average number kept since 2003: 10.0
Safest bets: Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver, C.J. Spillman
Leading contenders: Perrish Cox, Trenton Robinson, Curtis Holcomb, Tramaine Brock, Colin Jones
Longer odds: Ben Hannula, Mark LeGree, Michael Thomas, Deante' Purvis, Cory Nelms, Anthony Mosley
Comment: The 49ers lack experienced depth at safety. They could go young this season or consider adding a veteran later. Robinson, a sixth-round rookie, took some first-team reps while Goldson stayed away as an unsigned franchise player. Spillman also worked with the starters. The undrafted Thomas could have the inside track for a practice-squad spot after playing for coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio at Stanford. Holcomb, a seventh-rounder in 2011, is coming off Achilles surgery.
Special teams (5)
Average number kept since 2003: 2.9
Safest bets: Andy Lee, David Akers, Brian Jennings
Leading contenders: none
Longer odds: Giorgio Tavecchio, Kyle Nelson
Comment: All three specialists earned Pro Bowl honors last season.
"I know the 49ers have expectations this year," he wrote, "but it seems in our division it changes year to year. I'm a die-hard fan and always hope for the best."
Mike Sando: Yes, the Rams have a chance. It's an outside chance. They arguably have the most talented quarterback in the division. They have talent on their defensive line. Strength at those positions will give a team a chance.
The Rams will need much better luck with injuries. They're due on that front.
Also, while the NFC West has improved, the quarterback situations aren't stable across the board. There are no perennial Pro Bowl quarterbacks standing in the Rams' way. Every team in the division has taken too many sacks recently. Sacks put quarterbacks at risk to injury. A team's fortunes can swing wildly with an unexpected quarterback change.
Alex Smith started all 16 regular-season games for the 49ers. He was an exception among quarterbacks in the division. League-wide, seven quarterbacks have started 16 games in each of the past two seasons: Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Mark Sanchez. Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Matt Schaub, Josh Freeman and Bradford started 16 games in 2010, but not last season (Palmer was not injured).
Fifteen different quarterbacks have put together consecutive 16-start seasons since 2007.
Doug from Newbury Park, Calif., thinks the San Francisco 49ers look great on paper. He wonders where I might see the biggest depth concerns.
Mike Sando: Let's go with the safety position, where the 49ers have unproven depth. The 49ers have eight safeties on their roster, counting unsigned franchise player Dashon Goldson. The six backup safeties -- C.J. Spillman, Colin Jones, Ben Hannula, Trenton Robinson, Mark LeGree and Michael Thomas -- own a combined one NFL start (Spillman, with San Diego in 2009).
This doesn't mean I'm opposed to the 49ers' approach. I'd rather go young and trust the coaching staff's ability to develop than simply take the comfortable, short-sighted route with retread players. But the price is some uncertainty.
Boomer, deployed in Afghanistan, asks whether Bruce Irvin might put up Aldon Smith-like numbers (14 sacks in 2011) while playing a similar role for Seattle. He also wants to know who I think should start at quarterback for the Seahawks.
Mike Sando: Smith appears stronger and more physically imposing. He also benefited from stunts featuring Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Smith. The Smiths each had five sacks on third down alone. Ahmad Brooks (seven total sacks) also threatened offenses.
Seattle has Chris Clemons and newcomer Jason Jones. I'd give Irvin a decent shot at double-digit sacks. If he gets to 14, great for him, but that's a lot to ask.
Joe from Fort Worth suggests he'd rather have the Arizona Cardinals' receivers by a wide margin over those from other NFC West teams even though every team in the division expects improvement at the position.
"Please agree or disagree (and comment, of course)," he writes.
Mike Sando: Agreed. I'd probably take Larry Fitzgerald over the entire receiving corps elsewhere in the division. Every other receiver in the division could be replaced with relative ease -- if not right away, then after the season. There is no replacement for what Fitzgerald represents on and off the field. The gap widens further when we throw in first-round pick Michael Floyd, the underrated Andre Roberts and third-down threat Early Doucet.
1. Signing Perrish Cox. The 49ers have been looking to upgrade their depth at cornerback. Cox became available on the relative cheap -- for about $1 million over two years -- after his acquittal on sexual assault charges. Cox, a fifth-round choice for Denver in 2010, played for current 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell when both were with the Broncos. Coach Jim Harbaugh praised Cox's performance in offseason workouts, suggesting the 25-year-old defensive back would help on special teams and in the secondary. Cox started nine games in 2010. His legal problems kept him off the field in 2011.
2. Moving Boone to right guard. The 49ers were weak at right guard last season, bouncing from Chilo Rachal to Adam Snyder. They passed on options available to them in free agency. It's now looking like tackle Alex Boone projects as the starter for Week 1. Boone is arguably one of the five best offensive linemen on the team. Finding a way to get him on the field would make sense in that context. And with Boone at guard, the team can more easily groom Daniel Kilgore to eventually succeed Jonathan Goodwin at center. Kilgore previously projected more at right guard. Moving Boone also buys time for fourth-round choice Joe Looney to recover from foot surgery. Looney appears similar to O'Brien Schofield (Arizona) and Walter Thurmond (Seattle). Injuries made all three available later in the draft.
3. Positional shuffling. The 49ers will again be looking to keep some position players almost exclusively for special teams. Rock Cartwright is one candidate after the team lost Blake Costanzo in free agency. Tavares Gooden and Colin Jones were others last season. Making room for such players can require roster flexibility. Partially to that end, the 49ers are trying multiple players at more than one position. Defensive lineman Will Tukuafu and linebacker Michael Wilhoite have worked at fullback. Cornerback Cory Nelms and safety Ben Hannula have worked at receiver. Defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs has played tight end.
All four played in the NFC West: Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor from Seattle, Dashon Goldson from San Francisco, and Adrian Wilson from Arizona.
On the surface, few positions appear stronger within the division. Beneath the surface, there isn't much depth -- at all.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee sized up the situation in San Francisco recently, noting that C.J. Spillman is the team's only backup safety with even one regular-season defensive snap on his resume.
The 49ers can expect Goldson, an unsigned franchise player, to report at some point before the season. But San Francisco, like Seattle in particular among NFC West teams, lacks proven alternatives if injuries strike at safety. The drop from Pro Bowl talent to unknown backup can be a hard one.
It's a position to watch in the NFC West, for sure.
Starters: Wilson, Kerry Rhodes
Backups: Rashad Johnson (498 defensive snaps in 2011), James Sanders (462), Blake Gideon (0), Eddie Elder (0).
Comment: Rhodes missed nine games to injury last season. Johnson started in his place and played extensively during the Cardinals' late-season defensive revival. The experience Johnson gained should leave the Cardinals feeling better about the position. Sanders started six games for Atlanta last season. Arizona did not re-sign backups Hamza Abdullah or Sean Considine, who were special-teams contributors. Overall, the Cardinals feel very good about their depth in the secondary. Wilson's ability to play at a high level last season despite a torn biceps tendon improved the position's outlook. Wilson turns 33 in October, but appears to have quite a bit left.
Starters: Thomas, Chancellor
Backups: Chris Maragos (11 defensive snaps in 2011), Jeron Johnson (9), Winston Guy (0), DeShawn Shead (0).
Comment: Atari Bigby provided veteran depth last season. San Diego signed him as a potential starter in free agency. Maragos projects as a core special-teams player. The Seahawks were high enough on Jeron Johnson, an undrafted rookie in 2011, to keep him on the 53-man roster over a draft choice, Mark LeGree. Maragos projects as a core special-teams player. Guy and Shead have made positive impressions in practice recently. This is one position where Seattle could stand to develop or acquire quality depth in case Thomas or Chancellor suffers an injury. But with two of the NFL's best young safeties in the lineup, the team should be set at the position for years to come.
San Francisco 49ers
Starters: Goldson, Donte Whitner
Backups: C.J. Spillman (16 defensive snaps in 2011), Colin Jones (0), Ben Hannula (0), Trenton Robinson (0), Mark LeGree (0), Michael Thomas (0).
Comment: The 49ers did not re-sign veteran backups Reggie Smith and Madieu Williams. They did not use an early draft choice for a safety or target a veteran in free agency. Spillman, undrafted from Marshall in 2009, is getting plenty of reps this offseason while Goldson remains unsigned as the 49ers' franchise player. Spillman is already among the very best special-teams players in the division (he joined Seattle's Heath Farwell among non-positional specialists on our all-NFC West team for 2011). It's a bit early to know whether the 49ers could count on Spillman at safety if an injury forced their hand. But with eight safeties on the roster, the 49ers do have developmental options at the position.
St. Louis Rams
Starters: Quintin Mikell, Darian Stewart
Backups: Craig Dahl (486 defensive snaps in 2011), Matt Daniels (0).
Comment: Dahl started three games last season and 24 over the past three. He gives the Rams decent veteran depth behind Mikell and the emerging Stewart. Daniels is an undrafted free agent from Duke. He was eager to sign with the Rams when he learned they had only three other safeties under contract. Rookie third-round choice Trumaine Johnson has the size to play safety, but coach Jeff Fisher said the plan will be for Johnson to remain at cornerback. "(Moving to safety) may be something that happens later in his career, but right now he helps us as a corner," Fisher told reporters during the draft.
Surprise move: Releasing veteran backup quarterback Josh McCown was a mild surprise, not a shocking one. The team sought veteran depth behind Alex Smith and rookie Colin Kaepernick. McCown was on the roster for those purposes and could conceivably return if needed down the line, but the 49ers want to upgrade there if they can.
Keeping sixth-round safety Colin Jones seemed odd on the surface after Jones played sparingly on defense during preseason. He played extensively on special teams, however. Keeping Jones could qualify as a victory for assistant head coach/special teams Brad Seeley. Veteran guard Tony Wragge was let go after the team drafted interior linemen and developed Adam Snyder as an option at center. Keeping only two tight ends on this initial roster was a mild surprise but also a reflection of Nate Byham's season-ending injury. Rookie Konrad Reuland will presumably wind up on the practice squad.
No-brainers: Rookie receiver Ronald Johnson was a draft choice with ties to the coaching staff from his days at USC, but he didn't do enough during preseason to warrant releasing a superior player. Johnson appears to be a candidate for the practice squad. Keeping safety Reggie Smith despite injury concerns also was a smart, predictable move. He was in line to start entering camp and should factor at the position eventually. Backup running backs Anthony Dixon and Kendall Hunter made it, with Hunter as the apparent favorite for the No. 2 role.
What's next: The 49ers will want to add a veteran backup quarterback at some point in the near future. Smith has durability and performance-related concerns. Kaepernick, though talented, does not appear ready to step in as a starter in the near term. McCown knows enough of the offense at this point to come back in a pinch, but the team could sign another veteran for Week 1.
Let's get started with Liz Merrill's piece exploring one NFL player's search for his brother, and a most improbable discovery. Xavier Omon of the San Francisco 49ers plans to meet his half-brother, Ogemdi Nwagbuo of the San Diego Chargers, for the first time when their teams play Thursday night.
"It started, of all places, on Facebook," Merrill writes. "Delorise Omon, Xavier's mom, was catching up with an old acquaintance on the computer last winter. The man informed her that Chris Nwagbuo, Xavier's biological father, had died in 2004, and that one of his sons -- a half-brother of Xavier's that he'd never met -- just happened to play football, too. For the San Diego Chargers."
Omon's father abandoned him, one brother died in a car accident and another committed suicide. It's tough not to root for Omon as he fights for a roster spot with the 49ers. He's been in camp with the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks previously after not getting a single Division I scholarship offer at the college level.
Moving along ...
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com ranks Frank Gore as the top running back from the NFL's 2005 draft class. Noted: That was also the year Arizona used a second-round choice for J.J. Arrington.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee runs through 49ers position battles.
Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News does not find room for 49ers safety Colin Jones on his projected 53-man roster. Jones has played extensively on special teams this summer.
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com explains why tight end John Carlson required season-ending surgery. Carlson tried to rehab his shoulder after suffering a torn labrum, but the shoulder did not respond well enough to continue without surgery. Carlson: "I felt like I had a great offseason of training. Our offseasons are normally devoted to OTAs and minicamps, and those things are great for developing offenses. But the individual training sometimes is lacking and I felt like I had a great offseason in that respect. So it’s really disappointing to have to miss this year." Noted: Carlson's contract with the Seahawks expires following the 2011 season, at which point he'll be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times says the Seahawks plan to play their starters, perhaps more than usual, in the fourth and final exhibition game Friday night. The team rested seven starters in its final exhibition game last season. Coach Pete Carroll: "I don't care about tradition in the fourth preseason games. That matters nothing to me. We'll do what we've got to do."
Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic runs through the Cardinals' roster with an eye toward which players are likely to earn spots on the initial 53-man roster. Somers: "A month ago, it was questionable whether outside linebacker Joey Porter was going to make the club. But he took a pay cut, played well in the preseason, and no one behind him has stepped up. Clark Haggans starts on the other side, and Paris Lenon and Daryl Washington are on the inside. Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield give the club two young players to develop. Stewart Bradley could start at any of the four spots and likely will be used in sub packages. He easily could end up starting." Noted: Porter has played at least 14 games in 12 consecutive seasons, collecting at least five sacks in each of the past 11. The Cardinals thought he played too many snaps last season, a fair assessment given Porter's age (34 this season). Arizona's defense was on the field an average of 33:46 last season, its highest average since at least 1991. Think about that. The Cardinals have had some horrible offenses over the past couple decades, but none possessed the ball fewer minutes per game than the 2010 version. That will change with improved quarterback play.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com offers up his 53-man projection for Arizona. He's keeping Anthony Sherman over Reagan Maui'a at fullback, Reggie Walker over Quan Sturdivant at linebacker, DeMarco Sampson over Isaiah Williams at receiver and Marshay Green over Fred Bennett at cornerback.
Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com checks in with newly re-signed Rams receiver Mark Clayton, who is happy to be back with the team. Clayton underwent season-ending knee surgery in 2010. Clayton: "I am stronger than I have been. My speed is great. I think I’ll be faster than I was before. But now it’s working the little muscles in the background to get those right. That’s the big thing. That’s kind of what I have been focusing on."
Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis takes a look at the Rams' salary-cap situation. Balzer: "Of the current top 51 Rams players, only 28 have cap charges of $1 million or more. Having said that, selecting in the top two picks of three straight drafts has resulted in those players -- quarterback Sam Bradford, tackle Jason Smith and defensive end Chris Long -- counting a combined $37.765 million (31.5 percent) against this year's cap. That total jumps to $43.128 million in 2012, the final year of Long's contract, and when the cap isn't expected to increase significantly." Noted: Extending contracts can lower cap numbers in the short term. Without examining all the cap implications, getting something done with Long heading into the final year of his deal would seem to make sense. He's a core player, an ascending player and a low-risk investment.
Goldson, Donte Whitner, Madieu Williams and Reggie Smith give the team veteran depth at the position. All started games last season, as did Taylor Mays, whose future with the 49ers remains clouded as the team solicits trade offers for him. Curtis Taylor, C.J. Spillman, Chris Maragos and Colin Jones are also safeties on the roster for San Francisco.
Why so many safeties? The 49ers needed to improve their pass defense this offseason. They've rounded up a long list of safeties, creating a competitive situation as the exhibition season approaches. Options are better than no options.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. foreshadowed the 49ers' experience with Goldson this offseason, writing in June: "You might tell him, 'See what you can get, let us know,' and if he can get a big number he goes, but if he comes back, you get him back at your price and everyone is happy."
That is exactly what happened for the 49ers, a big win for the team. Goldson should return supremely motivated and possibly humbled. The team hasn't committed to him unnecessarily. The sides can revisit the situation one year from now. If Goldson plays well, the 49ers will be in better position to work out a long-term deal during the season, with Goldson having learned free agency isn't always such a fun experience.
Note: The flight I caught to San Jose early Monday was boarding just as news of Goldson's $2 million agreement was circulating.
Also from Barrows: Is Kendall Hunter the next Brian Westbrook?
Mindi Bach of CSNBayArea.com has this to say about Smith's likely return: "When he met with new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh in January, the two men hit it off immediately, Smith said. He said he liked the idea of playing for an offensive-minded head coach who played quarterback in the NFL. Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, 49ers head coaches since 2005, both came from defensive backgrounds."
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com explains why defensive backs Colin Jones and Curtis Holcomb appealed to the 49ers in the draft. General manager Trent Baalke on Jones: "When you look at the measurable, he's 6-foot, 210 pounds, runs low 4.4s and you can see it on film. He loves special teams. You look at the TCU film, covering kicks, covering punts, he's the first one down and he's not afraid of contact."
Tony Softli of 101ESPN St. Louis looks at potential free-agent defensive tackles for the Rams to consider this offseason. The Giants' Barry Cofield and the Seahawks' Brandon Mebane made the list. Softli on Cofield: "Cofield has developed into one of the league's best interior defensive linemen. He has explosive use of his hands with quickness out of stance and plays behind pads. Good run stopper with football instincts and a nose for the ball. Solid lateral movement over and around trash, a dominant interior lineman with some nasty in his play. Pass rush is adequate, but reacts well to screens and hustles to second level."
Mike Baldwin of the Oklahoman says former Rams and Steelers defensive back Clendon Thomas will be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. Thomas picked off three passes for the Rams in 1961, then had 15 interceptions for the Steelers over a two-year period. Baldwin: "A second-round selection, Thomas played 11 years in the NFL with the Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers. Playing primarily defensive back, because of his size and speed, Thomas was considered one of the top athletes in the league. Selected to the 1963 Pro Bowl and a three-time second team All-Pro selection, Thomas played in 137 professional games. He compiled 27 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. Thomas, 75, is a member of the Steelers Legends team. He also intercepted a Paul Hornung pass and returned it for a touchdown."
Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com says Bobby Engram was "humbled" to earn a spot as the third receiver on the Seahawks' 35th anniversary team, determined by online fan balloting. Farnsworth: "Finishing second to Steve Largent (5,004 votes) was Brian Blades (3,487), and coming in third -- as the slot receiver -- was Bobby Engram (2,254). Darrell Jackson finished fourth (1,388), followed by Joey Galloway (941), Daryl Turner (211) and Koren Robinson (95)."
Also from Farnsworth: Engram's former teammates reflect on the receiver's contributions. Lofa Tatupu: "His understanding of what the route needs or what the coaches expect out of it, the way he could read coverages, his understanding of route concepts and what the defense was doing -- it was all second to none. You put a nickel or a corner on him on the inside, he’d eat him up all day. Bobby was a professional in every sense of the word. He was an amazing guy – a guy you love to have in the locker room, a leader."
Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle asks whether Seattle could be in line to host a Super Bowl. ESPN.com's John Clayton put the chances at "virtually none" thanks to a combination of factors including hotel rooms, weather and stadium size.
Darren Urban of azcardinals.com shows off a sensational "Grand Cannon" poster featuring then-Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax standing before a Grand Canyon backdrop.
Pat Kirwan of NFL.com thinks Arizona would be a good fit for Carson Palmer if the Bengals decided to trade the disgruntled quarterback. Kirwan: "There’s no denying his talent and experience. If you’re looking to duplicate some of the things you did with Kurt Warner, he’s your best choice." Palmer would instantly make the Cardinals a leading candidate to win the NFC West, in my view. His addition would energize the team and revive the offense, particularly with three capable running backs to lessen the load.
Coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider had a decision to make. The team wanted to add more picks, so sliding back into the Vikings' spot at No. 106 carried some appeal. But the Seahawks had not addressed defense to that point in the draft, and Mississippi State outside linebacker K.J. Wright was a player they had been targeting.
Seattle decided to stand pat at No. 99.
"It is rare that you would find a linebacker with that much length (6-foot-4) and 4.6 speed," Carroll said after the draft. "We need that flexibility."
The NFL has become so specialized, particularly on defense, that players are increasingly difficult to categorize. Seeking fresh perspective on the 2011 draft, I reclassified the 254 players chosen into 20 positional categories, based largely on how teams plan to use them. The process was imperfect because teams view players differently, and some players transcend easy categorization. But patterns that emerged were helpful in bringing the big picture into clearer focus.
Breaking down linebackers into five categories across 3-4 and 4-3 schemes was particularly helpful.
Teams selected one 4-3 strongside linebacker in each of the first four rounds, but none thereafter. They selected 12 4-3 weakside linebackers -- none in the first two rounds, five in the sixth and three in the seventh. That position carried less value relative to others based on when the players came off the board.
Nine of 11 4-3 defensive tackles went in the first three rounds, affirming how much teams value that position. Teams selected five 4-3 defensive ends in the first two rounds, then none until taking one in the fifth and four more in the seventh. Teams selected four five-technique defensive ends in the first round and one in the second, but none over the next four rounds.
I ultimately divided players into percentiles based on where they were selected in relation to other players from the same positional categories. Three NFC West players were the first players chosen at their specific positions. They were in the top percentile for their positions. Three, including Wright, were the last players chosen at their specific positions. They were in the bottom percentile.
The percentiles say nothing about whether individual players will succeed in the NFL. In some cases, players with lower percentiles probably carried more value at that moment in the draft based on how few prospects remained available at their positions.
Without categorizing players more specifically, we might not have any idea.
Overall, this draft featured 37 cornerbacks; 28 wide receivers; 24 running backs; 21 interior offensive linemen; 20 offensive tackles; 16 safeties; 13 tight ends; 12 quarterbacks; 12 4-3 weakside linebackers; 11 4-3 defensive tackles; 10 4-3 defensive ends; 10 3-4 outside linebackers; eight five-technique defensive ends; seven 3-4 inside linebackers; seven fullbacks; six 4-3 middle linebackers; four 4-3 strongside linebackers; four nose tackles; and two specialists. Two defensive linemen -- Kansas City's Allen Bailey and Baltimore's Pernell McPhee -- qualified as nickel pass-rushers.
And now, a look at all 35 NFC West draft choices, listed by how early they were drafted in relation to other players at their specific positions:
First quarter: 75th percentile and higher
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals: First of 37 cornerbacks selected
Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers: First of 10 3-4 outside linebackers
Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams: First of 10 4-3 defensive ends
Ryan Williams, RB, Cardinals: Second of 24 running backs, putting him in the 91.7 percentile for the position (FBs excluded)
Lance Kendricks, TE, Rams: Second of 13 tight ends (84.6)
James Carpenter, T, Seattle Seahawks: Fourth of 20 offensive tackles (80.0)
Chris Culliver, CB, 49ers: Eighth of 37 cornerbacks (78.4)
Rob Housler, TE, Cardinals: Third of 13 tight ends (76.9)
John Moffitt, G, Seahawks: Fifth of 21 interior offensive linemen (76.2)
Second quarter: 50th to 74th percentile
Anthony Sherman, FB, Cardinals: Second of seven fullbacks (71.4)
Austin Pettis, WR, Rams: Eighth of 28 wide receivers (71.4)
Kendall Hunter, RB, 49ers: Tenth of 24 running backs (58.3)
Bruce Miller, FB, 49ers: Third of seven fullbacks (57.1)
Kris Durham, WR, Seahawks: 12th of 28 wide receivers (57.1)
Daniel Kilgore, C, 49ers: 10th of 21 interior offensive linemen (52.4)
Sam Acho, OLB, Cardinals: Fifth of 10 3-4 outside linebackers (50.0)
Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers: Sixth of 12 quarterbacks (50.0)
Greg Salas, WR, Rams: 14th of 28 wide receivers (50.0)
Third quarter: 25th to 49th percentile
Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks: 24th of 37 cornerbacks (35.1)
Mark LeGree, S, Seahawks: 11th of 16 safeties (31.3)
Quan Sturdivant, ILB, Cardinals: Fifth of seven 3-4 inside linebackers (28.6)
Byron Maxwell, CB, Seahawks: 27th of 37 cornerbacks (27.0)
David Carter, DE, Cardinals: Sixth of eight five-technique defensive ends (25.0)
Jermale Hines, S, Rams: 12th of 16 safeties (25.0)
Fourth quarter: Zero to 24th percentile
Colin Jones, S, 49ers: 13th of 16 safeties (18.8)
Jabara Williams, LB, Rams: 10th of 12 4-3 weakside linebackers (16.7 )
Ronald Johnson, WR, 49ers: 24th of 28 wide receivers (14.3)
Mikail Baker, CB, Rams: 32nd of 37 cornerbacks (13.5)
Pep Levingston, DE, Seahawks: Seventh of eight five-technique defensive ends (12.5)
Mike Person, C, 49ers: 19th of 21 interior offensive linemen (9.5)
Malcolm Smith, LB, Seahawks. Eleventh of 12 4-3 weakside linebackers (8.3)
Jonathan Nelson, S, Rams: 15th of 16 safeties (6.3)
K.J. Wright, LB, Seahawks: Fourth of four 4-3 strongside linebackers (0.0)
DeMarco Sampson, WR, Cardinals: 28th of 28 wide receivers(0.0)
Curtis Holcomb, CB, 49ers: 37th of 37 cornerbacks (0.0)
Why the weak endorsement?
Kiper liked some of the 49ers' picks, including first-rounder Aldon Smith, but he thought the team reached for quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the second round. The 49ers traded up nine spots to draft Kaepernick because, in their view, they could not have drafted him later.
"Three, four teams were diving in to get him and we got him one pick before we couldn’t have gotten him," coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Kaepernick is the key variable for San Francisco in this draft. The better he fares, the better this draft class is going to look. Harbaugh deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to evaluating and developing quarterbacks. His ability to do those things stands out as the No. 1 reason the 49ers hired him. His background suggests he should know the position better than the analysts handing out grades. The glass is half full on Kaepernick.
Overall, the 49ers hit upon a couple of themes in this draft.
They wanted versatility and got it in Smith, a player they think can play multiple positions. They got it in Bruce Miller, who will play fullback after becoming the all-time sack leader at Central Florida. The 49ers see running back Kendall Hunter and receiver Ronald Johnson as four-down players. They project offensive linemen Daniel Kilgore and Mike Person as interior players, but both have experience at tackle. Cornerback Chris Culliver has played safety.
The 49ers, burned by Glen Coffee's retirement last year, were particular about getting players with unquestioned passion for the game. They placed gold stars next to roughly 45 players they considered meeting every aspect of all the criteria, on and off the field. They tried to target these players more heavily and said they came away with roughly twice as many as any team in the draft. Their own needs and biases slanted those evaluations, of course, and other teams might have singled out a different set of players. But you get the idea. This should be a lower-risk class if the 49ers were right.
Like Seattle, the 49ers did not come away with an interior defensive lineman (the Seahawks' Pep Levingston projects as a five-technique player along the lines of Red Bryant). Like Seattle, one of the 49ers' key veteran tackles is headed for free agency. General manager Trent Baalke joked that defensive line coach Jim Tomsula might have to suit up if nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin does not re-sign. Baalke's Seattle counterpart, John Schneider, likewise admitted there's more urgency to re-sign tackle Brandon Mebane after the Seahawks did not address the position.
No draft goes perfectly. The 49ers said they tried and failed to land fullback Owen Marecic, a player Harbaugh coached at Stanford. It's sometimes tough to know whether a coach is being generous in his praise for a former player. Seattle's Pete Carroll said nice things about Taylor Mays, but he clearly preferred Earl Thomas. In this case, the 49ers drafted Hunter at No. 115, then watched Cleveland take Marecic nine spots later. The 49ers had already traded the 141st pick in the move to get Kaepernick. After missing on Marecic, they traded up into the 163rd spot for Kilgore.